8 Places Where There Could Be New Public Access to Hunting and Fishing by the Fall Opener
New Interior Department proposal would expand opportunities on some national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries
In a ceremony at Ottowa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio this week, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced a proposal to expand hunting and fishing access on some U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-run refuges and fish hatcheries and open new sportsmen’s access on others. This recognizes the value of hunting and fishing to the American economy and addresses one of the major threats to hunting and fishing participation—lost access.
“This announcement will benefit America’s sportsmen and women by providing access to prime hunting and fishing areas,” says Christy Plumer, TRCP’s chief conservation officer. “As public access remains a challenge across the nation, opportunities like this are a shining example of what we can do to support our outdoor recreation economy.”
According to a DOI press statement, there will be a brief public comment period to finalize the proposal, after which these areas could provide new hunting and fishing access to all Americans by the fall opener.
Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin
This series of islands in Lake Michigan, off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula, provide critical plant and wildlife habitat that would be open to hunting and fishing for the very first time. On Plum Island, once the site of a U.S. Coast Guard facility, shoreline-only fishing has been discussed, and deer hunting could be expanded to a section of Detroit Island. (According to the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands, special tags have been available since 2016 to manage the deer herd on Plum Island.)
Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Wyoming
Areas already open to some hunting on this refuge in Southwest Wyoming’s high desert plains would allow deer and elk hunting for the first time under the new proposal. Designated units are already open to fishing and hunting for mule deer, pronghorn antelope, moose, ducks, and sage grouse, which actually helped give the refuge its name. Seedskadee is a botched rendition of the native Crow’s name for the Green River: “sisk-a-dee-agie” or “River of the Prairie Chicken.”
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
The proposal would expand existing upland and big game hunting to additional acres on this refuge, which is home to both freshwater and saltwater marshes and some of the last remaining longleaf pine forest in the Southeast. This might include additional limited permits for deer, hogs, and turkeys.
Great River National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois and Missouri
This refuge, which straddles 120 miles of the Mississippi River along the Illinois-Missouri border, would expand its season dates for existing deer, turkey, and other upland game hunting to align with state seasons. The proposal would also offer hunters additional methods—currently there is a firearm season for antlerless deer on Fox Island and special permits for muzzleloader-only deer hunting in the 1,700-acre Delair Division.
15 National Fish Hatcheries Across the U.S.
Leadville National Fish Hatchery in Colorado and Iron River National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin would formally open lands for migratory gamebird, upland game, and big game hunting. Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery in Texas and Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery in Washington are proposing to formally open their lands to recreational fishing.
Always check and follow all refuge and state regulations before taking advantage of hunting and fishing opportunities on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands.
Why Public Land Grazing is So Important to the American West
As the demographics of the West change, sportsmen and women can feel good about supporting working ranches that responsibly graze their livestock on public lands—these private landowners and land managers are key partners in conservation and often facilitate hunting and fishing access, unlike the condo complexes that might pop up without them
Private lands make up about 60 percent of the U.S., while hundreds of millions of acres are grazed by livestock. And though it may seem like sportsmen and women only have eyes for public lands, these private lands can also offer critical seasonal habitats and connectivity for fish and wildlife, as well as recreation access.
Working ranches are an incredibly important part of this public-private land fabric—not to mention the Western economy and way of life. But the reliance on public lands for grazing has remained a hot-button issue even after unregulated grazing was curbed by federal law decades ago.
Some of you may immediately think of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the armed confrontation over his failure to pay grazing fees to the federal government for the use of public lands. Others may have heard groups calling for the outright abolishment of all public land grazing. But smack dab in between these opposing and polarizing views lie most sportsmen and women and tens of thousands of hardworking families who own and manage millions of acres vital to fish and wildlife.
So why does this legitimate use of public lands still get a bad rap?
A Brief History of Grazing in the West
Livestock grazing on both private and public lands dates back to the homesteading era and westward expansion. As iconic and integral as ranching is to the West’s ethos and economy, grazing has also contributed to a long history of controversy and debate over public lands management, from the era of unmanaged sheep and cattle grazing after the Civil War to the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s into the present day.
After decades of unregulated livestock use in the West led to overgrazing and degradation of rangeland and water resources, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. Today, livestock grazing is much more heavily regulated, yet remains a hot topic, as grazing plays into the complex multiple-use management scheme that must address increasing demands on our federal public lands from a growing human population.
At the heart of this perpetual debate lies a wide range of issues surrounding private property valuation and rights, water quality and usage, endangered species, access to public lands, and habitat for fish and wildlife, among other things. Across Western landscapes, private lands often occur in a “checkerboard” arrangement with federal and state lands, further complicating issues and creating unique challenges for multiple-use management.
Despite the complexities of multiple-use management, maintaining economically viable ranches is of vital importance. The loss of family-owned ranches might mean development on some pretty special landscapes, loss of habitat for native species, or the end of “handshake agreements” for hunting and fishing access.
Not an Either-Or Proposition
So, why is public-land grazing so necessary to keeping these private-lands ranchers in business and on the land? To remain financially solvent, many ranches rely on their own acres AND federal grazing permits. Most of the time, they can’t have one without the other.
The Taylor Grazing Act put tens of millions of acres of public land into grazing districts and smaller units, or allotments. Ranchers apply for renewable 10-year permits to graze on these allotments. Each permittee must own their own base property near the allotment to be eligible and must pay for their use. So, not just anyone can graze their cattle on public lands.
Most Western ranches need both their deeded property and their federal grazing allotments to make an operation economically viable. If ranchers can’t sustain their businesses from the land they own and federal lands they have access to, most will undoubtedly hit a breaking point and sell to a willing buyer. And the sale of existing properties can present new challenges to sportsmen and women.
Private Lands in Other Hands
Much of what happens if a ranch must be sold depends on whether it has a perpetual or long-term easement in place, who buys the land, what their objectives are, and other factors driving the purchase and existing land condition. But a great reason to support responsible ranchers with public land resources is to avoid the risk of what could come next if they sell their property.
While many chunks of land would never be carved up for parking lots, luxury homes, condominiums, commercial real estate, or other development, sub-division of large tracts of land indeed is a real and ominous threat already pervasive across the West. Subdividing private lands does not usually bode well for wildlife conservation or our hunting and fishing access.
Land may transfer hands to another ranching operation—possibly even one with a stronger emphasis on voluntary conservation—but a new landowner could also choose not to re-enroll in a public access program or might move forward with converting wildlife-friendly rangeland to cropland.
The future of private land depends on many things that wind up looking like a roll of the dice in Vegas compared to keeping working lands in knowledgeable working hands.
Partners in Conservation
Landowners are critical to conservation success and thus must be considered necessary partners in conservation. They shouldn’t have to feel threatened by species restoration plans or other resource conservation efforts. Conservation should present opportunities for landowners to keep their lands productive and thriving for both livestock and fish and wildlife.
There can be negative impacts on habitat from improper livestock grazing, and there will likely continue to be issues and disagreements among private landowners and public land users on how public land should be managed. We are all equally accountable to natural resources held in the public trust, whether you own cattle, land, or a hunting license.
Assuming the worst of landowners or attacking their interests does nothing to further conservation. In most cases, they are the worthy stewards of their own lands and our public acres. And losing working ranchlands to development would not bode well for fish, wildlife, or sportsmen in the long run.
Recent angst over sage-grouse conservation, leasing in migration corridors, and water issues should encourage us to strengthen our relationships with all stakeholders interested in finding common ground for conservation and use of our public lands. That includes ranchers who rely on public lands for grazing. The path forward for public and private land management that will sustain conservation is one of continued collaboration and partnership—not polarization.
Aldo Leopold once said: “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” As the contemporary adage goes, the TRCP supports keeping “working lands in working hands.” We will continue working with our organizational partners, plus businesses, landowners, and decision-makers, to ensure that our landscapes provide all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.
How I Got to Hunt Elk with My Conservation Idol, Steven Rinella
A smart auction bid put Brian Duncan out in the field with the MeatEater host for a dream hunt
If you listen to the MeatEater podcast or watch Steven Rinella’s show, you probably feel like you know him and his whole crew. But you’d be forgiven for feeling a little pressure if he was watching you line up on a bull. Brian Duncan gives us a taste of what it was like to bid for and win a truly unique Colorado elk hunt that brought him face to face with his conservation idol and a hunter’s hunter.
Here’s his story.
I couldn’t believe it when I won—I didn’t think I had a chance at having the highest bid, but before you knew it, I was on the trip of a lifetime with Steven Rinella. He’s someone I’ve always looked up to in the hunting and fishing world, and the information he puts out there really inspired me to get into conservation over the years.
But the last thing I wanted to be was a goofy fan, so there were some jitters about meeting and hanging out with him and Janis Putelis. In the weeks leading up to the hunt, I kept thinking, Am I going to miss or do something stupid in front of them? But those feelings went away quickly once we arrived—not only were they fantastic and welcoming, but there was little to no time to be nervous.
Together with my nephew Jon and some friends, we touched down in Denver and drove up to the ranch, where we immediately sighted in our rifles—we were hunting within hours of being on the ground. Our buddies went fishing with folks from the TRCP, while I went with Steve and Janis guided Jon.
Little did we know that this hunt would start slow and have a fairly dramatic conclusion.
At first, Steve and I were just trying to establish a pattern of behavior for this group of elk that liked to hang in a meadow. They seemed to know exactly when it was about to be legal shooting light, because they’d filter into the timber so we didn’t have a shot. It was a cat-and-mouse game to set up in the right spot with enough light left.
I was getting antsy as the days passed and I felt like I only had a few chances left. But things started heating up on our last afternoon: They’d been bugling at us all day, and I was getting excited thinking, This is finally going to happen.
But then, suddenly, we heard a shot—my nephew Jon had gotten his bull. I was excited for him, but knew I’d be disappointed if it had spooked the elk on their way to my field.
Still, they came streaming into the meadow, and we were in position. There were only a few minutes of legal shooting light left. Steve was pointing out a bull and I was trying to find it in my binos and scope, but ultimately I thought it was just too dark to risk having a near miss.
We celebrated Jon’s success that night and it would not have been a loss if we left it at that. In the evenings, Chef Andy Radzialowski prepared the most incredible meals, and the topics of discussion over dinner and coffee ranged from hunting and conservation to literature and politics. That was almost the best part, spending time with so many smart, funny, conservation-minded people and just telling stories.
Like I said, it was almost the best part.
There was a one-hour window of opportunity the next morning before everyone had to leave to make their flights, and Steve asked me if I wanted to go for it one more time. So, we got up even earlier and headed back out to the meadow.
This time, we went all the way around back to where the elk had been exiting into the timber the day before, and just minutes after legal shooting light, there was a bull right out in front of me. It was a nice 5×6 (would have been a 6×6 if one of his tines wasn’t broken off) and it was bugling its head off with a bunch of cows around him. I fired, perhaps a little rushed, and he spun around, but my second shot took him down right away.
They’re always such impressive animals, even if this wasn’t the biggest bull in the world. I already have a full shoulder mount at home, so I plan to have this bull euro mounted for the main wall in my lake house. The real trophy is what’s in my freezer—and every time I share that meat with family or friends, I get to tell the incredible story.
An organization that provides all-expenses-paid flyfishing trips to combat veterans ensures that participants go home with so much more than campfire stories
With the inspiring success of organizations like Project Healing Waters and Casting for Recovery, many sportsmen and women are aware of the emotional and physical healing power of the outdoors. But when Dan Cook, formerly a financial executive, set out to establish Rivers of Recovery in 2009, he wanted to prove that the act of fly fishing—not to mention the camaraderie of bringing veterans together in remote and beautiful places—actually made a biological impact on returning military service members.
“They analyzed urine and saliva samples from the program participants before, during, and in the 6, 9, and 12 months after a fishing trip,” says Amy Simon, who started out as a Rivers of Recovery volunteer before running the organization with Cook and eventually stepping into the executive director position in charge of all operations and program curriculum. “The tests showed lower cortisol levels after fishing, and the participants reported sleeping better, having lower stress, and, in some cases, going off medications they’d relied on for their mental health. Dan really wanted to go beyond starting an organization and actually prove we were making a difference.”
Thirty veterans took part in their first trip out of Dutch John, Utah, and these days the organization runs programs in eight different states, touching countless lives in the process. Over time, they discovered that building an experience within an existing community of local veterans was very beneficial, compared to flying a group out to Utah. This way, relationships could be built and maintained after the trip, and supportive local businesses, fishing guides, yoga instructors, and other volunteers remained in the participants’ community as resources.
“We found we could leave behind a footprint of support,” says Simon.
She was also instrumental in launching RoR’s first trips exclusively for female veterans, who may be dealing with entirely different issues than men when they return home. In the October 2017 issue of DUN Magazine, U.S. Army veteran Monica Shoneff explained, “A lot of female vets get out of the military and jump back into caring for a family. Self-care becomes a low priority. Where men can focus on themselves, we get lost.”
Now an RoR volunteer, Shoneff estimates that 95 percent of the women combat veterans she’s met have experienced sexual trauma during their military careers, leaving many to deal with anxiety, depression, and high rates of PTSD.
So, how does an all-expenses-paid flyfishing excursion help? “You have to focus on what you’re doing,” she tells DUN. “It takes away from time to ruminate and think about past events or worry about the future.” Simon adds that the activities on the water and in camp start to generate trust, bring vets out of their guarded stance, and open lines of communication. “By the time you leave, you feel like you’re part of a family,” she says.
In many cases, none of this would be possible without public lands, says Simon, so conservation and the healing power of the outdoors go hand in hand. “If those resources were not available, we would not be able to succeed,” she says. “How can you not want to take care of these places that give so much to someone like a wounded veteran?”
Another active volunteer and RoR Board member, Jim Mayol, says he sees public lands issues differently now that he’s witnessed the transformation of program participants. “I see them before the trip, after, and in social settings, and there’s no doubt that the outdoors has had an impact on their healing,” he says. “It’s a no-brainer for me to advocate for these places now, where I may not have given it a lot of thought before.”
New Interior Order Supports Recreational Access to Public Lands
Modernized BLM priorities for land disposal and exchange will benefit hunting and fishing access
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt today directed the BLM to prioritize public access in decisions regarding the disposal and exchange of BLM public lands.
Bernhardt signed Secretarial Order 3373, Evaluating Public Access in Bureau of Land Management Land Disposals and Exchanges, to help ensure that BLM public lands, no matter how small, remain in public hands if they are highly valued for outdoor recreation access.
“Sportsmen and women across the West will benefit from this Interior Department action to sustain and enhance recreational access to BLM public lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “In some places, there are small parcels of BLM land that serve as the only means of nearby access to hunting and fishing or as the only access points to adjoining public lands managed by other agencies. The Secretarial Order will ensure that key parcels are valued for this recreational access and help keep these lands in the public’s hands.”
“We are glad to see that recreational public access was identified as a top priority for the BLM when they make land disposal and exchange decisions,” said Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “We believe this decision will bring great benefits for hunters by sustaining access and opportunity on federally owned lands. We thank the agency for their stakeholder outreach leading up to this announcement and for taking sportsmen and women’s interests to heart.”
Today’s guidance means that the agency now must consider public access when determining the value of these isolated parcels of public lands. Further, in the event that a disposal or exchange might affect public access, the order provides additional direction to help retain that public access or makeup for any losses of access through an associated acquisition.
“We express our sincere thanks to the Department of Interior for unequivocally recognizing the value of hunting and other recreational access when making crucial decisions regarding ownership of our federal lands,” said Brent Rudolph, director of conservation policy for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. “The conservationists that make use of these lands benefit greatly, and their activities in turn support the management of our natural resources and financial health of many rural communities.”
A recent study led by the digital mapping company onX and TRCP found that 9.52 million acres of public lands in the West are inaccessible to the public without permission from private landowners. Small, isolated parcels of BLM land often provide the only means of access to larger parcels managed by states or other federal agencies that would otherwise be similarly “landlocked.” Because of today’s directive, the BLM must now weigh such potential implications in any decision regarding the disposal or exchange of these types of parcels.
“GPS technology has revolutionized the way that Americans use their public lands, making it easier than ever before for the average outdoor enthusiast to identify and access smaller, out-of-the-way parcels,” said onX founder Eric Siegfried. “As a result, there’s been a growing awareness in recent years that landlocked or inaccessible public lands represent lost hunting and fishing opportunities for the American people. We applaud the Department of the Interior for reaffirming the importance of public land access, and for taking this step to ensure that all Americans can take advantage of the incredible experiences offered by our nation’s public lands.”
“Access is one of the most significant priorities for hunters and anglers and a real concern for new sportsmen and women in particular,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Our public lands and waters provide access to all regardless of stature. We thank the administration for their leadership and foresight in elevating consideration for lands that not only support fish and wildlife habitat but provide access and opportunities to ensure that our outdoor traditions endure.”